“Do you recognize me?” The artist Suzanne Valadon asked this of a journalist while they hunched over a reproduction of Auguste Renoir’s Danse à la ville (City Dance) (1883) in her studio around 1920. “The female dancer who smiles while falling into the arms of the male dancer,” she added. “That’s me.” As an aspiring artist in Paris during the 1880s, Valadon had supported herself by modeling professionally for Renoir, as well as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and other prominent artists. Modeling, she recalled, was physically and emotionally demanding work, with lengthy sessions in which an employer “would ask me to give him an attitude, a movement, a gesture.”
But between modeling sessions, it was Valadon who sought to capture the movements and gestures of her family, friends, and neighbors in Montmartre, the working-class district where she lived nearly her entire life. Having sketched since age nine, Valadon began to draw and paint the human figure with growing seriousness, focusing on women and children in her economically precarious, socially marginal, and culturally vibrant community. Using graphite and charcoal, pastel and oil paint, she studied the members of the hardscrabble households in the area—in particular, her own. In works such as Two Studies of Maurice Utrillo Nude Drying Himself (c. 1892–94), Valadon pictures the frail limbs and stooped posture of her young son with narrow, angular lines that emphasize his bony frame. Maurice appears vulnerable yet resilient, like the domestic and service workers who populated his mother’s drawings.
Parisians had their first opportunity to view works by Valadon in 1894, when she exhibited five drawings at the prestigious Salon de la Société National des Beaux-Arts. She had been encouraged to participate in the Salon by a colleague and patron, the artist Edgar Degas. “From time to time in my dining room,” Degas wrote to Valadon after purchasing a work of hers, “I look at your drawing in red pencil, still hanging, and I always say to myself: ‘This devil…had the genius of drawing.’ Why don’t you show me something else?” Through her friendship with Degas, Valadon soon did embark on something else: printmaking.
Her swift mastery of the medium is evident in an etching from 1895, Catherine Nude Combing Her Hair. Wielding the etching needle like a pencil, Valadon renders an intimate moment in a bare apartment with firm lines, insistent shading, and repeated forms. From the curved contours of the tub and the bowl to the rounded buttocks, stomach, and breasts of the figure between them, recurring shapes connect the body of the model—posed by a local cleaning woman named Catherine—to the everyday objects around her.
Valadon returned to a similar theme in Marie Bathing with a Sponge (1908), though she used a different printmaking technique: drypoint. With drypoint, a needle is used to incise lines on a metal plate. While in etching the raised edges alongside these incised marks are scraped away, in drypoint the edges are maintained so as to generate lines of different widths and textures. Valadon capitalizes on the full potential of drypoint in this work, describing the figure, tub, and garment with an array of lines that are variously thin and thick, hard and soft, dense and sparse. Notably, wide and downy contours encircle the figure, defining her raised arm, curled back, and bent legs. With these contours, the artist both attracts and obstructs the eye, accentuating the supple physique of the nude model while at the same time creating a potent visual barrier between model and viewer.
Indeed, this duality in Valadon’s extensive drawn, printed, and painted body of work has led critics and scholars to propose that the artist developed a radically modern approach to the female nude, one shaped by her gender and class identification with her subjects. To Valadon, familiar with the risks and rewards of self-exposure through modeling, every line was informed by complexity and consequence.
Annemarie Iker, Mellon-Marron Research Consortium Fellow, Department of Drawings and Prints